Here are some of my best bits and recommendations for those of you who are hitting the same spots of the world...
(Whole lotta love - Top of the Pops theme tune)
Top Three Cities
1. New York by far comes in at number 1. A city I immediately felt at home in, never got bored of exploring and need to one day get a work VISA for. The buzz, the food, the park, the people, the crippling cost and the jazz. Take me back.
Top Three NYC
The High Line - old suspended railway converted into incredible green landscape
2. Bangkok. Completely manic, with more temples, shops and tuk-tuks than you'll ever need, I got to know Bangkok pretty well after a week there. Again, great food, old and new, public transport, terrifyingly cheap bars and I even stumbled upon a brilliant jazz club.
3. Queenstown. Backpacker party town with the best burgers I've ever had, all set by a magnificent lake, mountains and Australasia's highest bungy jump. Beef, cocktails and adrenaline.
Top Three Meals
1. Deep Pan Pizza - Chicago. Comparable only to eating a tomatoey, cheesy, meaty hardback book. You must go to Giordanos.
2. Misschu's Vietnamese street restaurant - Sydney. Yummy finger food which would be ordered at a window kiosk on the street and then eaten sitting on boxes on the pavement.
3. Pretty much all of the Thai Green Curry's and Spring Rolls I had in Thailand. I never got bored of Thai food.
1. Hosteling International - New York City. For all you hitting NYC on a budget and want the hostel scene, rest your head here. The largest hostel in North America, HI NY has over 600 beds, a massive outdoor patio, loads of organised outings, and 2 industrial kitchens big enough to swing a horse in. If you want a hostel with a real chilled NYC vibe though, check out The International Student Centre. Located in a beautiful old house on a leafy Upper West Side street, and it's half a block from the metro and Central Park. This place has a great ethos, and I spent some of my best days here just nattering on with the cool staff about our travels and NY (whilst we got snowed in...).
2. Lub D Hostel - Bangkok. Boutique, modern hostel located in two hearty locations in Bangkok. Cheap, spotless, and the best showers I used on my trip.
3. Byron Beach Resort - Byron Bay, Australia. Reached by walking down Byron Bay Beach for 20 minutes, and located itself a horse throw from the beach, this 'resort' (it's a basic hostel) provided plenty of hammocks and a neighboring cafe offered killer coffee.
HI New York - Castle meets hostel
The International Student Centre - New York. The hostel to end all hostels?
1. Pants (thanks Joey). The washing cycle gets pretty boring, but underwear is something you don't want to wear again and again. Stock up on pants.
2. Pack less than you'll think you'll need and don't stand out (don't pack too flash).
3. If you're anxious about doing it alone, think again. Of course safety is something to consider depending on where you're going, but in terms of meeting people, the majority of hostels I stayed at made it too easy to meet people and give you plenty of stuff to do.
Top Three Experiences
1. Living in a Thai Buddhist monastery for a week. Pretty life changing I think. Blog post can be found here or visit the real thing here.
2. Drumming in a New York and Shanghai Jazz Club. This was a dream of mine to drum in New York, and I didn't get boo'd off. Played one of my top three jazz tunes, Maiden Voyage. If you hit NYC, definitely check out Small's Jazz Club (underground) and Dizzy's Coca Cola (in skyscraper with views over Manhattan).
3. Scuba diving with Bull Sharks - Fiji. Bigger than I thought they would be which gave me a fright at 20m, but so elegant and luckily not too curious. We turned up on a day when they were expecting to be fed, so didn't hang around for too long.
Buddhist monastery - Wat Pah Sunan, Thailand
Top Three Facts I Learnt
1. The population of China is forecast to grow by the population of the UK (70 million) in the next 3 years, from 1.33 to 1.4 billion. China's population is 2.5 times larger today than it was in 1949.
2. Even if you cut off a cockroach's head, it can live for several weeks.
3. Chipotle is the best take-away I have every been to (everywhere in the US). Amazing burritos ... you wait, UK! (Currently only two in London).
China: Massive walls, massive population
Top Three Travel Songs
1. M83 - Midnight City. This tune captures everything New York, and takes me right back.
2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues. I discovered this on the 56 hour train ride from Chicago to San Francisco. Great traveling song, and this video also fits pretty well with the train ride.
3. Patrick Watson (Thanks Joe Newmarch) - Big Bird in a Small Cage. Discovered in New Zealand. This video reminds me of one glass-playing/smashing jam session I had, consequentially in a New Zealand bar.
With a population of 1.33 billion (and growing steadily...), one in every five people in the world is Chinese. It's predicted to reach 1.4 billion by 2015.
Fortune cookies were actually invented in San Francisco.
The Chinese invented paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.
The 18 day adventure through mainland China began from Hong Kong (map below), as our tour guide 'Dragon' escorted the fifteen strong group of young travelers from all over the world down into the Metro station to catch a train north to the Hong Kong / Chinese Mainland border. I found a new respect for tour guides after watching Dragon battle through China with us.
The tour group provided a refreshing blend of young travelers from all over the world, including; The UK, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Norway, South Africa, North America, and Newcastle. We all became quite close by the end of the trip, and were all glad that we didn't decide to tackle traveling China on our own. Here's why...
It was a Chinese public holiday, which meant that the border was at a gridlock with Chinese visitors flooding into Hong Kong, and likewise Hong Konger's leaving to the mainland. Weighed down with our backpacks and me carrying a suit I'd bought in Bangkok (which survived the whole trip through China!), we felt the full wrath of the crowds and were introduced to the Chinese method of surviving crowds; pushing and shoving. By the end of the trip, this was accepted as just one culturally accepted survival method in a country of 1.33 billion people, and one which is due to grow by the size of the UK in the next 2 years. Terrifying.
After beating the crowds and being re-united with Dragon who we lost in the race, we eventually got through to Shenzhen to board the first of five overnight trains during our tour, for the 13 hour trip north-west bound for Guilin in Guangxi Province. By the end of our tour, we were sleeper train veterans. Long crowded corridors filled with Chinese travelers playing games and eating the popular travel snacks of pot noodles (better than ours) and fruit. I developed an addiction to monkey nuts for some reason. Fun and delicious.
Beds were provided in the form of a three-tier stack; in six bed cabins, with bottom beds forming a den for card playing by torch light (lights out was at 10) and monkey nut feasting, and the top beds provided a heavenly retreat up in the clouds. It was a great way to travel as a group, as well as interact and watch the locals (who were always keen on watching us too, and attempt to teach us some Mandarin. The most difficult part for our group to get used to however was the toilet facilities; or holes in the floor which quickly became pretty unbearable and required some A++ balancing skills. That's enough on that, but one unforgettable experiences was the smells that would waft down the train corridors; consisting of steaming noodles and occasionally the mentioned toilets.
(Thanks to http://www.bitrot.de/)
From the early morning arrival of our sleeper train into Guilin, we took a local public bus for the 1½ hour journey to the small country town of Yangshuo; a quaint but touristy town surrounded by steep and fog covered limestone karst mountains which left some partially exposed or fully revealed.
The highlight of Yangshou involved the tour group (now recovered from the sleeper train) setting out on bikes to dodge the crazy Chinese traffic and cycling amongst the towering karst mountains, which provided a beautiful and ever changing experience. We cycled for hours through country lanes, paddy fields and after having lunch with a local farmer, all fifteen of the group returned in one piece to rest their legs and bums.
The next morning, after catching the bug for this beautiful scenery, I decided to head off into the surrounding villages to find some real Chinese life. It came pretty quickly, as after stumbling around a local market for a few minutes, I walked into my first real culture shock of the trip. Hung up in front of me without any warning was one of China's canine victims, skinned and boiled. Pretty gory and it gave me a real shock, but I was later comforted by our tour guide who informed me that dog is actually only eaten in some rural parts of China, and that only one breed of wild farm dog was used.
I still can't look at our family dog in the same way.
The other highlight of Yangshou came later in the day when some of the group undertook a cooking class from which we were taught how to cook Chinese dumplings and noodle dishes using ingredients bought earlier from the same market where I had the dog experience. Now I think of it, we didn't actually see our teacher buy the meat. All of our made dishes were very tasty though and we felt qualified to open Chinese restaurants back home.
Chongqing (with a measly population of 29 million; China's largest city) provided a little stop off before heading to the Yangtze River and Three Gorges boat trip. The highlight here was seeing some Panda's in Chongqing Zoo (they're almost impossible to see in the wild, we were told, and looked reasonably happy feasting away on their body weight in bamboo). Unfortunately however, some of the other animals looked miserable, which was enough to put you off zoos forever.
Lunch in Chongqing involved one of the three culinary highlights of the trip, the Chongqing or Chungking ("numb and spicy") hot pot, to which a special spice known as huā jiāo is added; bringing a sensation on the tongue that is both spicy and burns and numbs slightly. A very tasty and messy experience, which luckily resulted in no burns after slaving away cooking our food in the boiling cauldron of this spicy broth.
Three Gorges Boat Trip
One of the slower parts of our trip, as we spent two days floating down the Yangtze River (home to the infamous new Three Gorges Dam which even though created the largest hydro-electric power stations in the world, meant that 1.3 million people had to be displaced in order for it to be built!).
The weather was pretty drab during our time on the river, meaning that the Three Gorges weren't at their most impressive, even though the sheer scale of the river and its towering banks was stunning. Our time on the boat passed by with the aid of more card games and an evening of karaoke from some of the Chinese guests onboard, which forced us to go to bed early.
Our next base for 3 days, Xi'an is one of the oldest cities in China (with a population of 9 million) and has more than 3,100 years of history.
We got right into it by heading to the huge city walls which surround the centre of the city, and rented bikes which helped pass a few relaxed hours. This stunning wall provided a suitable warm-up for the great one which we would see in the following week. The Chinese sure made great walls.
Xi'an provided a perfect blend of old and new China, which led it to be a favourite stop-off amongst the tour group.
Other highlights included visiting the 'Giant Wild Goose Pagoda'; a Buddhist pagoda built in 704 and then after climbing to its top, rewarding ourselves later that day with another culinary highlight of China; the Dumpling Banquet. This involved being presented with 15-20 different types of dumplings, all filled with various fillings and being shaped in accordance to what they contained. (Below is a duck) (?).
After gorging on this feast, I decided to walk it off by heading into the Muslim Quarter within the city walls. By night it was a labyrinth of narrow streets complete with bustling stalls and weaving mopeds. This city by day and night was completely electric.
The following day was our final day in Xi'an, which meant that there was only one more thing left to tick off the tourist list; something which every visitor to China has to do, and something I couldn't wait to see with my own eyes: The Terracotta Warriors.
The 1000 strong army of these life-size, highly detailed warriors stand in battle formation in the largest of the excavated pits, with an estimated 5000 more to be revealed. The whole three pits of warriors, chariots and horses were stunning, so go and see them before they're just shattered men.
Our fourth and penultimate sleeper train led us to Shanghai; the largest city in the world by population (even though Chongqing above is the unofficial one), with a sardine can popping population of 23 million. This was our first feel of actually staying within one of China's megacities. It was also scary to learn that pre-1992, the famous skyline you can see below was flat, existing only as farmland. It now made sense when our tour guide told us that China changed every time he ran a tour.
Having only one full day in Shanghai, we packed a lot in, and sampled the touristy highlights including The Bund (the busy waterfront area) and The French Concession (a small former French territory now characterised by quirky, tree lined streets and boutiquey restaurants). All very continental, (but now modernized and too clean to feel like France).
My first and final evening in Shanghai involved two exciting displays for the eyes and ears.
First was an acrobatic show, which included mind boggling and terrifying displays of body bending, hoop jumping, pot-on-head balancing, bicycle riding and of course the famous 'ball of death' motorcycle stunt. All too much to take in - but here is a sample of one of the best bits:
The 'Ball of Death'
To cool my neurons down, I decided to head back to The Bund to catch some jazz at one of the best and most established clubs in town; The Peace Hotel. It turned out to be some of the best jazz i'd ever heard; a sextet from New York who after a steaming four hour set let me remedy my itchy fingers by playing with them. After getting an exciting offer to play with them the next time I was in NYC, I again walked home buzzing; the Shanghai skyline lights and streets now silenced as the clock read 3am.
Our final few hours in Shanghai before getting our last sleeper train north to Beijing were mainly taken up by heading out of town to experience the 'MagLev' train, which as the name suggests is a train suspended by magnets and is capable of super fast speeds. This particular train in Shanghai is capable of 430 km/h, but what we didn't know is that the train only goes this fast after 4pm for some reason. So, there were we sitting tight in our seats watching the speedometer rise, to 301km/h, where it stopped. A sense of disappointment was obvious in the group, even though it was fun enough, especially when a train passed by in the opposite direction, causing you to feel a bit sick with shock. 430km/h, next time.
Our final sleeper train to Beijing went in a blast (even though it went at a snails pace compare to the MagLev), even though I was accompanied in my 6 bed cabin my five snoring old Chinese ladies. All part of the experience.
Our early morning arrival into Beijing was welcomed with crisp blue skies and and white blossom floating through the air, which made it all a bit surreal but quite beautiful. After settling into our hotel, we made the most of the great weather by ticking off some of the highlights such as Tian An Men Square and The Forbidden City.
One highlight included making the slightly mad decision (I was the only one from my group) to head to Tian An Men Square early one morning to watch the sunrise, and for The Guard to raise the Chinese flag. Even though it was early and dark, I was greeted with thousands of mainly Chinese tourists who entered the square from all sides, which made it feel like a scene from MJ's Beat It video. I didn't start fighting, or dancing, and the smoggy sunrise wasn't really worth getting up for, but it was fun anyhow.
(Watch the whole thing, but I mean the scene around 2 minutes)
The Great Wall (Not visible from space)
Definitely great! The pleasant weather continued, and after a two hour bus journey to a relatively unspoiled area of the wall, armed with walking shoes and cameras, we set about conquering the 4km stretch of winding and ascending wall. It was truly stunning, and ended up being a real highlight of my trip. The perfect weather meant that the stretching wall could be seen for miles, over and around hills, and blossoming, white trees lined the wall at either side.
Art Zone 798
This was a real gem of my time in Beijing. 798 is a 50-year old decommissioned military factory site, which now complete with its old industrial style, houses an art community consisting of 400 cultural institutions spanning galleries, shops, exhibition spaces and restaurants. There was a really nice feeling to the place; bringing old Beijing to the modern age through incorporating Chinese and mainly western art and culture. There were also obscure sculptures dotted around the 6 sq/km site, which made turning every corner a surprise.
Beijing was another mad city; but something I was used to by now on my trip, after spending 3 weeks in China and a fair few megacities along my travels. The metro was always busy; like a constant rush hour which grated a bit (especially in rush hour!), but one thing I did like was a queuing system designed for people to leave and enter the train. It sometimes worked, but how about it London?
My final day here was spent getting lost in its many old, winding 'Hutongs' (or the old residential alleys and lanes of Beijing), seeing what competition London had in terms of the Olympic Site (the Bird's Nest is incredible!) and finally braving the Beijing metro system (Bangkok bought suit and 5 kites in-hand) to head out of town towards the space-age Beijing Airport where I had a few hours to kill before my 2am flight and the 18 hour trip back to London via Doha.
P.S Qatar Airlines are awesome (loads of free sweets and spacey), and 'We Need to Talk about Kevin', 'Hugo' and '50/50' are all great films.
That's it for now - I'm back safe in my sleepy Suffolk town. Thanks for following and reading - It's been a great trip!
The three S's
Spitting - A culturally accepted thing to do, and you can rarely avoid hearing or seeing it, but mainland China and especially Hong Kong are now trying to stop it through severe fines.
Squatting - Western style toilets are pretty rare in mainland China, and toilets mainly consist of either holes in the floor or communal gutters in which everything goes. (Same for both males and females!)
Staring - As a group of fifteen young, mainly European travelers, we gained quite a lot of attention in public, especially when we were standing waiting in train stations as a pack. At first, many of the group found it intimidating, but we eventually learnt that their interest wasn't threatening, and many Chinese people had never seen blonde haired caucasians.
Hong Kong has more Rolls Royce’s per person than any other city in the world.
Hong Kong is the most densely populated city in the world (35,700/km²).
Hong Kong has the most skyscrapers in the world (2354). Number 2, NYC has a third of this!
As my short two hour flight from Bangkok pulled into Hong Kong’s famous, compact airport, the sun began to sink. My bus drove towards my base for the next four days and past seas of shipping containers, the famous and now lit-up skyline began to reveal itself. Hong Kong was one city I most looking forward to visiting on my trip, and it provided the start to a three week trip up into Mainland China and eventually my final destination, Beijing.
I eventually arrived at my hostel on the East side of Hong Kong Island, which was basically a set of apartments in a high rise tower, split up into dorm rooms. It was fine, but immediately alerted me to the price and scarcity of space in this hectic city. The energy of China also hit me; people and lights everywhere, but something I would eventually get used to over the next weeks. After grabbing some sushi and spending a few hours wondering the streets like a cat to get my bearings, I headed back to my shared box and hit the hay.
The next morning I set out on visiting the ‘Giant Buddha’, a giant 34m high bronze statue situated on top of a hill on nearby Lantau Island, and something I had looked forward to seeing before I began my trip. After a one hour ferry trip to the island and then a windy bus journey through the island, I eventually arrived at the site of Po Lin Monastery and the Giant Buddha. The towering Buddha was stunning, as well as the views from its lotus flower platform which could be accessed by the 268 steps to its sitting place. It was certainly worth the climb and the six month wait.
As I made my back towards the bustle of Hong Kong Island, the sun was again beginning to set, so I again wondered the streets as the night lights began to reveal themselves and light up the sky. I also got my fourth and final haircut of my trip. I chuckled to myself in the hairdressers chair as the Barber handed me a glossy mag from which to chose the haircut I wanted from an array of celebrities including Peter Andre and McFly. I eventually opted for a haircut based on one of the latter, and it worked out OK.
The following day, paired with my new haircut which had by now lost all sign of being cut and styled, I decided to make the most of the sun and explored The Hong Kong Gardens, Botanical Gardens (complete with lots of people doing Tai Chi) and the Hong Kong Gallery of Arts (great gallery with views of Hong Kong Island) on Kowloon Island; situated north of Hong Kong Island. Today also marked my final day in HK before I joined a group and began my tour into Mainland China.
My final highlight in HK was heading up to Victoria Peak; a mountain on the East end of Hong Kong Island which offers stunning views from 552m over central and Kowloon areas of Hong Kong as well as far stretching mountains and seas. Being a Chinese holiday, I was warned of the influx of Chinese tourists to HK, so headed in early to catch the first tram up to the peak. It was deserted, so after making my way up the steep tramline along with a couple of other tourists, I was greeted with a quiet spot from which to observe Hong Kong waking and smogging up. By the time I was ready to head back down to the buzz, it appeared that half of China were coming up to get their fix.
Even though only in HK for a few days, I fell in love with the place because of its immediate buzz and energy, all set beside beautiful parks and gardens which provided sometimes welcome escapes in which many aspects of Chinese life could be observed (Tai Chi and kids pooing on paths were most obvious).
It was time to leave this completely electric, jam packed city, and head into the Chinese mainland. Things were going to get crazier.
My final 4 days in Thailand were spent in Bangkok; a city which I'd used as a base before heading north to Chiang Mai and west to the monastery, and had drown increasingly fond of. I had to put 4 days aside here to apply and collect my Chinese Visa; a laborious and tedious process which took 3 days and involved plenty of ferrying around the city for documents and waiting in many a queue. Oh well, I got it, so here I come China.
VISA Hell (Thanks to http://migrationology.com for piccy)
The rest of my time in Bangkok involved some really great experiences though, so here are some of them, together with some tips for you that are heading to the city.
Heading back to Bangkok
After a completely different and calm week spent at Wat Sunan Buddhist forest monastery (see below for blog), the time eventually came to head back to the bustle of the city. I'd grown increasingly fond of Bangkok; a truly hectic and electric city with amazing new and old, so I headed back with anticipation even though I knew I'd miss the forest monastery and its serenity.
Joe, a Thai man also staying at the monastery and was heading back to Bangkok the same day as me kindly offered to give Delphine (another European who had stayed) and I back to the city. After a 5 hour journey back south, stopping off at a few tourist spots including an elephant camp and the Bridge over the River Kwai, we eventually began to feel the friction of the rush-hour Bangkok traffic. As we became increasingly held in its grip, getting nowhere, Joe turned to me and asked me whether I'd like to come and stay with him and his family at their home in the outskirts of the city. After a week spent at the monastery learning to embrace the moment, I accepted, and we turned around and headed back out of town.
After a brief stop off to grab some street-food supper, we arrived at his home where his two sons were chilling out at the front. A lugged my bag inside, and by the time I came back out, the news of a visitor 'Farang' (westerner) had obviously spread, and a number of children from neighbouring homes had now joined Joe's sons. A really nice evening of being taught how to eat Thai style by the kids, as well as me teaching them some English and showing them piccies of my trip followed, and the whole experience was a lovely and genuine display of Thai hospitality; something which I had become increasingly exposed to.
Joe and Family - such lovely hosts
Jim Thompson's house
The following day, after a hectic morning at The Chinese Embassy, I seeked some respite and headed to Jim Thompson's house; a collection of Thai homes imported from various areas of Thailand into the centre of Bangkok by American Major Jim Thompson during the 50's.
Accessed by a quiet street running off one of the busiest in Bangkok, the site consisting of beautiful and quiet gardens and six houses of various shapes and sizes, was for me my favourite experiences in Bangkok and is a must see for anyone in town.
Terminal 21 is an absolutely mammoth shopping centre complex, complete with 9 floors each representing a different city, all dressed with appropriate monuments, signs and staff. Great (and loud!) cinema on the top floor (a film costs 70baht, or one pound forty) and the lower level basement is home to some of the yummiest and cheapest food I found in Bangkok. I'm not usually a fan of shopping centres, but this one is FUN! (The London Underground themed toilets also gave me flashbacks...)
A nice surprise during my time in Bangkok was that Greg, an old friend from Suffolk was in town at the same time as me as he's now moved over to Thailand to teach English. Besides having some great nights out sampling all of the local foodie and liquid delicacies, we also put our music hats back on and decided to re-live our famed days in a band together by renting out a rehearsal room for a morning. Something you can do before you're 40, before it looks more like two friends attempting to cure for their mid-life crises.
Equipped with a drum kit, 2 guitars, a bass and some amps big enough to sink a ship, we blasted our way through 3 hours of tunes, and I blasted my way through 2 pairs of the flimsiest drumsticks I've ever used. Certainly a personal record.
I decided to sample Thai jazz, and after doing a bit of research into the best jazz spot in Bangkok, I headed to Saxophone Jazz Club, Victory Monument. I wasn't disappointed. I watched the 'Small Big Big Band'; consisting of all Thai jazz musicians, as well as a few special guests from abroad including one chap from Chicago. The sound was great, as was the atmosphere and food, and for me it certainly rivalled any of the jazz clubs I'd been to in New York.
So that concluded my time in Thailand; a fantastic and diverse few weeks ranging from amazing serenity and going back into uni mode at the Buddhist monastery, to the electric bustle and heat of Bangkok.
Bangkok for me became one of my favourite cities I came across on my trip, not only because of the culture and food which I loved, but there is an energy which was like nothing I'd experienced anywhere else. (No, it doesn't beat NYC!). One thing which did hit me was the amazing youth culture in the city; which I think gave the city it's energetic backbone. This culture seems predominantly controlled by fashion and technology (You could bet on what trends the youngsters would be sporting, as well as what phone they had), and this was something I hadn't seen anywhere else.
See you again, Bangkok.
Chinese Visa in hand ... next stop: Hong Kong and three weeks travelling up through China from Hong Kong to Beijing! A great finale to my trip.